A recent National Trust report highlights that it is difficult to measure the tangible social benefits of community energy but that doing so is worthwhile to encourage a shift in the policy landscape to support its uptake and innovation. One thing is clear: wherever you find successful community energy projects, you will see real benefits for the local area. Here are five areas where projects are adding value:
Community Energy England’s 2018 State of the Sector report found that 58 per cent of community organisations surveyed cited educational initiatives as a core outcome of their projects. Benefits listed in their 2015 survey included using installed solar panels as a resource for interdisciplinary learning, for example embedding them in the geography, maths and physics curricula.
Repowering London and Lambeth Council have combined their efforts in a new community energy solar project. Five schools and a library will have solar panels installed as part of the first phase, and they foresee educational benefits ranging from solar panel making workshops to a new sustainability and energy education course for students. However the educational impact will reach beyond the schools, with the leaders hoping it will “inspire wider environmental activities within the borough”.
2. Fuel poverty
Fuel poverty affects around 2.55 million households in the UK. If these households were to spend enough money to heat their homes adequately, their remaining income would sink below the official poverty line. There are various ways that community energy can help reduce fuel poverty, including by making homes more efficient or by providing advice and guidance.
The Carbon Co-op in Greater Manchester delivers whole house retrofitting to maximise insulation and energy efficiency for members. In 2014, funding from the then Department of Energy and Climate Change helped fund the Community Green Deal, with 12 whole house retrofits, including external and internal wall insulation, triple glazed timber windows, new boilers, passive stack ventilation and solar PV. These made significant energy performance improvements and almost 80 per cent savings on carbon emissions.
Plymouth Energy Community was established in 2013 to help tackle the 13.4 per cent of homes in Plymouth that resided in fuel poverty. As well as installing solar PV to 21 schools and offering insulation schemes, the community energy group also launched the Healthy Homes fund which pays advisers to engage with local residents who suffer from illnesses exacerbated by cold or damp homes. The project not only saves local people money on their energy bills, but offers them expert guidance on energy efficiency.
3. Funding community projects
The State of the Sector report found that £1.1 million went into community benefit funding in 2017. Most Community Benefit Funds are set up by larger energy companies for spending on local projects. Some funds are directly controlled by the local residents. In 2017, wind farm developer Cubico Sustainable Investments Limited set up a fund called the Middlewick Farm Community Benefit Fund in Essex. The company has committed to funding voluntary and community organisations with around £750,000 over the next 20 years in grants. A panel of local residents, supported by the Essex Community Foundation, will make the decisions regarding grants awards, putting spending choices in the hands of the community.
4. Local economic resilience
The National Trust report highlighted above focused on a community energy case study in Abergwyngregyn, Wales. It found that “planning, survey and engineering works all provide local employment opportunities, and the income from schemes strengthens the local economy”. Community Energy England’s 2015 survey backs this up, adding that many of these services are required beyond the initial setup, sometimes providing communities with 20 years’ worth of business. It also highlights that majority of money spent on community energy projects was retained in the area: of the £50 million investment in existing projects, £23 million was spent with local businesses.
5. Community cohesion
The Abergwyngregyn case in Wales provided insight into the social benefits of community energy that are not as tangible as others. It explains that projects can improve social cohesion, creating new networks and connections between individuals.
Within their 2012 Impact Survey, Community Energy Scotland discovered that one major social benefit was that it increased community confidence; ie after undertaking a challenging task together, a community felt more able to take on similar large tasks in the future.
Current regulation does not fully appreciate the added value that community energy brings to the sector. As we move to an energy future that is distributed and decentralised, efforts must be made to recognise the true value of community energy and embed this in future UK energy strategies. A regulatory environment is needed that allows community energy to flourish, for the benefit of the economy, the environment and society.
Image by Adrian Arbib of the Westmill Solar Coop